The Manxman: London film festival review

The Manxman (1929)
The Manxman (1929)

A folk romance that stumbles into melodrama, an adaptation of a blockbusting novel that is now all-but forgotten, The Manxman may seem to be far more of its time than ours. But the London film festival’s archive gala screening of this neglected Hitchcock film was having none of that. The red carpet was rolled out in Leicester Square and the crowds in the Empire cinema foyer were stocking up on nachos and popcorn before taking their seat. OK, so some of assembled throng were clutching tickets for Dredd or Madagascar 3, but Screen One was devoted to a lush, heartbreaking night of silent cinema.

And the venue was oddly appropriate. Back in its music-hall days, the Empire was the first London venue to run a paid-for programme of films. It’s a long journey from the Lumiéres’ actualities to the gorgeousness of The Manxman – arguably they have more in common with the 3D thrills on offer in the neighbouring screens – but it’s a happy connection to make.

The Manxman was Hitchcock’s final “pure” silent – he was to shoot his next film Blackmail in both silent and sound versions – and the romance of the film’s story is augmented by the thought that the director was leaving his beloved silent cinema days behind him. Perhaps that is why the film is so unashamedly picturesque. The Cornish coast that doubles for the story’s Manx setting is imposing, but gorgeous. Hungarian star Anny Ondra is filmed as a tiny silhouette in front of sun-punctured cloud, skipping down vertiginous cliffs or strolling with her lover in dappled woods – and the film begins and ends with a view of fishing boats  in the harbour. These images, like the film itself, combine prettiness with an air of intangible, elemental danger, and it’s this that makes The Manxman such a gripping watch.

Because this movie can be tough too: when a crisis arrives, a disconcerting cut from a body falling into water to a pen plunging into an inkwell is as violent as Hitchcock at his familiarly cold-hearted best. On this screen, and with the benefit of the BFI’s new gleaming restoration, it looked spectacular.

The Manxman (1929)
The Manxman (1929)

Ondra plays Kate, the daughter of the local pub landlord (a brilliantly grim-faced turn by Randle Ayrton). Best pals daft-but-dishy Pete, a fisherman (Carl Brisson), and Philip, an ambitious lawyer (Malcolm Keen), are each in love with Kate, but the latter is playing his cards close to his chest. In an excruciatingly twisted balcony scene, Pete coaxes Kate into an engagement, a promise to wait for him while he goes overseas to make his fortune. At first Kate doesn’t take him seriously, and it’s not clear which of the men – the one proposing or the faithful chum who is (literally) supporting him – is causing her to simper and pout. However it was extracted, it’s a rash promise to make, and as we’ll see, it will have terrible implications. Needless to say, while the cat is away, Kate strays, but what happens next is horrific, and not so easy to predict.

We have heard a few silent film scores recently (in this Hitchcock season no less) that have seemed to smooth out, or trample over the nuances of each  scene. Not so here. Stephen Horne‘s rich score for The Manxman is alert to each turn of conversation, each double-meaning, furtive glance or blush. It’s a piece that is always a pleasure to listen to, but unafraid to sacrifice its melody to the drama when needed. This is crucial for The Manxman, where the plot hinges on whispered revelations, changes of heart and emotionally gruesome details – Kate’s face when her fiancé appoints his friend best man at their wedding, or she cuts her hand on their cake. The tempo slackens forebodingly when mid-speech, Phil is distracted by the sight of Pete and Kate together and the music follows the lead of Hitchcock’s stormy lighting effects, colouring each scene with shades of what is yet to happen. While the strings and piano offer folk melodies, there’s often a rumbling bass drum warning of impending disaster and even, at one crucial point, a very assertive oboe. The flute solo when Pete visits Phil towards the end of the film is particularly poignant; the ensemble together replicating the texture of nagging voices in the final scene especially cruel.

No one will argue that The Manxman is Hitchcock’s finest hour, the acting from the two male leads is often very weak, and the storyline offers only emotional trauma rather than his familiar bloody shocks. Despite those reservations, it is a sharply beautiful film and Anny Ondra’s sleepy-eyed romantic fool gives us a great Hitchcock Blonde before icy Grace Kelly was even born. The joy for us now is that Horne’s score gives The Manxman its best possible chance to shine, not just following but enhancing our pleasure in watching Hitchcock toy with this doomed love triangle.

Stephen Horne’s score for The Manxman was performed by Stephen Horne (piano/accordion/flute), Jennifer Bennett (fiddle/viola), Joby Burgess (percussion), Janey Miller (oboe/oboe d’Amore) and Ruth Wall (lever harp/wire harp).

14 thoughts on “The Manxman: London film festival review”

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for this excellent review. I think I need to see it again because I was struggling with it quite a lot. It did seem “old fashioned” often, probably even in its own time of 1929 with its over the top acting style especially with the close-ups. I do like varied, different acting styles sometimes in the same film which is one of the joys of silent cinema ( eg, the excellent “Hindle Wakes” 1927 version, where the clash of the independent young woman played by Estelle Brody with the older generation is heightened by the different acting styles.) I’m against the idea that all acting should be “naturalistic”, but this strange in your face acting mostly from Carl Brisson in The Mankman was too much for me. Things were not helped by a few people around me occasionally laughing at the film, with one scene in particular getting a few giggles, where after Philip and Kate hear of the “death” of Pete, Kate says “We are free”. This being the scene in the film that the usually on the ball Charles Barr rates highly as one of the most moving in all of Hitchcock’s work. I can’t remember exactly the sentence. So this film does have its illustrious supporters.

    The Spanish Dancer tomorrow with Stephen Horne again, this time just on the piano I think.


  2. Great Review.

    I was absolutely spellbound by it, maybe the gorgeous print and maybe the lovely score contributed but the story was so beautifully handled… and so heartbreaking. I was not bothered by the quality of the acting, I think Brisson did “daft but dishy ” perfectly well and Anny Ondra was stunning (Hitch clearly knew that with all the lovely, long, lingering shots of her). This, and Rich and Strange have been the two revelations of the BFI season.

  3. I am one of the perverse few who argue that The Manxman is actually Hitchcock’s finest hour. I didn’t see the new restoration, but its elemental qualities, striking use of close-ups, vivid landscape photography that is integral to the unfolding human drama, its pure narrative (extracted from a truly dreadful novel) and indeed its emotional trauma have stayed with me since I first saw it many moons ago. Charles Barr, as noted above, is a great admirer of the film also. It may not be the best ‘Hitchcock’ film, but that’s something else.

  4. I’ve been lurking for awhile here, but that top photo or still is so striking I had to make a comment. I’m new to the silent movies but I love your posts and this is just a great review. I live in Colorado and we recently had a Silent Movie film festival, very fun. Great blog for newbies.

  5. I loved the score and it was wonderful to see Stephen Horne spellbinding such a vast auditorium. The restoration was glorious. To me, this is what film archiving is all about. I know it’s actually just a small part of what it’s all about in reality, but to be able to see this film, looking brand new, on a huge screen, was breathtaking. As for the film, I was struck most of all by the extraordinary performance of Anny Ondra, The way she twisted her body into strange and tortured shapes were a superb external manifestation of internal conflict. Very mature silent screen acting. What also struck me is that this is less a Hitchcock film than a Hitchcockian contribution to a very typical type of British film from the 1920s; pastoral; melodramatic, a little stilted at times, but very, very British.

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